A-level attainment, or high-level aspiration?

The biggest questions being asked right now in higher education are about money.

How much should universities charge? Should they be free? Should they be funded? Where is all their money going?

But, for applicants at least, finance is not a barrier to higher education in the UK right now. The ability to pay university fees doesn’t disenfranchise qualified applicants in the UK, as it does in so many other parts of the world. However, for some critics of the system, issues of money mask a bigger question: who should be able to go to university in the first place?

As the Government introduces its post-18 funding review, it seems time for the sector to prepare a clear argument for the value of higher education – and how it can be accessed fairly.

Looking to the future

When commentators state that too many people go to university, or that too many universities admit the wrong quality of student, they are drawing on a sense that what matters in admissions is what an applicant has already achieved. Attainment at A-level or equivalent acts as a proxy for intellectual quality. And yet, academic colleagues, once students are admitted, often spend significant amounts of time weaning students off the practices and expectations they have been coached in at college or sixth-form.

So why do we continue to prize A-level attainment above potential and aspiration? Do we want university education to reinforce and replicate the limits of school and A-level syllabi or do we want to shepherd the creation of informed, enlightened, and adaptable citizens?

The result of this fixation on A-levels is the premium placed on the university entry tariff. But an inflexible grade tariff places arbitrary limits on the aspirations of many people.

I’m not suggesting we scrap the tariffs altogether; they provide an important benchmark of intellectual suitability and of the drive and commitment of a student.

Instead I’m suggesting that tariff – prior attainment – should form part of a bigger picture of assessment for a university place. The sector should do more to demonstrate the value it places on rejecting ingrained notions of privilege, quality and entitlement.

Fairer chances

The A-level grades an applicant achieves are not in themselves an objective assessment of potential. As we know, A-level success draws on a person’s socioeconomic background, the quality of the teaching received, the amenities available at school and at home. It builds on opportunities available from birth onwards – and conversely the lack of such opportunities can have a direct impact on attainment.

As such, reading potential from prior attainment runs counter not only to social justice but also to widening participation in higher education. This is not because applicants in certain deprivation categories lack natural talent, but they often lack access to opportunity, support, and encouragement. This has been recognised, for example, in Scotland where Recommendation 11 from the recent Commission on Widening Access notes the need to establish “access thresholds for all degree programmes against which learners from the most deprived backgrounds should be assessed”.

Privileging a specific A-level tariff and threshold, then, privileges a mode of attainment that is simply unavailable for a wide set of applicants, and creates a self-replicating series of expectations about performance. It is information without knowledge, a dangerously uncritical juncture at which to make such essential, life-changing decisions.

One alternative

At De Montfort University we are unabashed about an admissions policy that is not fixated on a particular tariff. We want to be the educator of choice for those who see higher education as developing their future potential, not reifying their past performance. Our wide range of tariff is supplemented by a university-wide culture of interviewing to examine not the applicant’s eloquence but his or her aspirations, goals, and mindset.

We ask for examples of completed work: portfolios, projects, and experience-based achievements. We want our potential students to show us what they want to learn to do. We support them via transitions programmes bridging their course of study and student services, so that any obstacles they have encountered in the past don’t continue to impede them.

We have seen success in our students’ improving outcomes, particularly our black and minority ethnic (BAME) students. We are now more than 50% BAME, and consider (in common with the sector) that the attainment gap is an unacceptable element of the status quo. We’re proud that our attainment gap is closing, and aim to continue to reduce it exponentially over the next few years.

Our applicants are not a collection of qualifications but individuals – striving to create their own opportunities. They should not be defined by their prior attainment but rather by their desire to learn and grow.

A proud purpose

Enabling this for as many people as possible is the ultimate purpose of a 21st century university, a purpose only achieved by challenging a stable status quo that really only maintains privilege. We should be prouder that nearly 50% of the population now pursues higher education; we should strive to, as we note at DMU, keep universities for the many.

We should not be making it our job to find excuses to keep people out. We should be working to widen access to education for all who aspire to it, who want to develop, who are not simply the sum of their past achievements. We should actively believe in their capacity to learn, and we should evolve our own expectations and assumptions to enable this.

As we debate what constitutes learning gain, how to measure quality and excellence, and what, exactly, a degree is for, we need to maintain a simple truth: aspiration and potential are not measurable solely through prior attainment. By offering those who want to succeed along a pathway, we at DMU, and in the sector as a whole, create flexible, resilient citizens, ready for the challenges presented by ever-faster social and technological change.

The skill, talent and innovation of the people who will define the future come in many variations: it is higher education’s job to be open to all its manifestations.

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